Understanding Boundaries Part I: What are Boundaries

Before we talk about how to set effective boundaries, it is important to understand what we mean by the term “boundary” and how we come to understand this concept in different facets of our lives.  It is important to understand that boundaries exist in different forms- some are firmer and more rigid than others and some are more ambiguous or looser than others.  Boundaries typically are discussed when in terms of our interpersonal relationships and interactions with others, but we can also have personal boundaries that we hold for ourselves.  

What are Boundaries?

So, what are boundaries?  Based on a survey of definitions across the internet, boundaries can be defined most simply as limits with a purpose.  The function or purpose of establishing, communicating and asserting these boundaries is to promote a sense of safety and protection for ourselves and others.  There are different types of boundaries that exist, including personal, time-related, sexual, material, physical, emotional, mental/psychological, and spiritual boundaries to name a few.  Let’s go a bit more in depth with what each of these types of boundaries indicate.

Material Boundaries

Material boundaries determine how you handle and share your personal items with others.  This might require you to consider how often and how much you give or lend out your personal items to others, such as your money, car, clothes, books, food, office supplies, pillow and/or toothbrush to name a few.

Physical Boundaries

Physical boundaries pertain to your personal and physical space.  Consider your physical privacy- who has access to your phone, car keys, apartment or home key?  How comfortable or uncomfortable do you feel when others peruse your belongings, look through your drawers or sit close to you?  Consider also your physical body when considering boundaries- what forms of physical touch and affection are you open or closed to – to whom and when?  What are your limits with nudity?  Do you prefer hugs or a handshake?

Mental Boundaries

Mental boundaries apply to your values, beliefs, opinions and ideas. Is it difficult to hear others’ thoughts or opinions that may differ from yours? Do you think that you easily sway your thoughts and opinions to match those of others? Do you know what you believe, and can you hold onto your opinions? Can you listen with an open mind to someone else’s opinion without needing to attack or defend?  Consider what triggers your emotions and your level of reactivity. 

Emotional Boundaries

Emotional boundaries highlight the importance of recognizing that individuals are responsible only for how they feel and not for the feelings of others. When one acknowledges that they are not responsible for making another person comfortable, happy, etc, then there are less transactions of guilt and shame. Consider how easy or difficult it is for others to impact your mood or feelings throughout the day.  How often do you experience feelings of guilt within your interpersonal relationships?

Sexual Boundaries

Sexual boundaries allow you to define your limits with regard to affection, intimate touch, and sexual activity.  These limits require consent and an understanding of what each participating party is comfortable with and not comfortable with engaging in.  

Spiritual Boundaries

Spiritual boundaries relate to your own ability to assert your own beliefs and to practice in a way that aligns with your beliefs.  These beliefs often relate to our way of being in the world, our decision making capabilities, our values, the meaning that we gain from our lived experience, and our relationship with our higher power(s).  These boundaries may reflect certain times of day that we commit to engaging in our spiritual or religious practices, asserting time alone or discussing what you are comfortable or not comfortable sharing about your beliefs.


In our next blog, we will explore the function of boundaries and how to understand the next steps in establishing them in our relationships with ourselves and others.


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